How to counteract escalating polarisation

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Language and Culture student Sabine Persijn (22) cannot help but notice that the gap between left-wing and right-wing people is widening, and discussions are getting more and more polarised. At first, she thought it was the university's task to expose students to different points of view, but now she puts the ball in the students' court: they have to think critically and learn to walk a mile in each other’s shoes. 

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In 2019, I wrote an opinion piece for DUB about 'patronising' at the University -- a hot topic at the time. I talked about how I didn’t feel comfortable to express my opinions in certain classes, because I was afraid that they would be immediately dismissed. I also wrote that we tend to judge others too fast without entering into a dialogue with them. What’s worse, the University often supports this quick judgement by presenting a single perspective and not taking divergent opinions seriously. This can cause increasing polarisation between left and right, something that is still very relevant, as the American elections last November showed.

Still, there are some things in that article that I would like to come back to. After one and a half years, I have come to a slightly different understanding of what patronising and polarisation mean, and the connection between them. It remains a hot topic.

Polarisation is still a problem
First, I would like to emphasise the points that I still agree with from my previous article. I still think polarisation is a problem. The gaping hole that has opened up between left and right is getting wider, and not just in America. Although to a lesser extent, that’s also the case in the Netherlands: the left only interacts with the left, and the right with the right. This has always been the case, but people seem to be moving further and further apart from each other. Alienated, almost.

I also experience this alienation personally through social media bubbles, accompanied by fake news, which sometimes even go so far as to lead to conspiracy theories and scientific scepticism. But cancel culture, where people (often celebrities and companies, but also 'ordinary' social media users) are disgraced for certain opinions they have shared on their platforms, is just as problematic, because it often concerns a hasty generalisation and therefore has a counterproductive effect. The result: more misunderstanding, more alienation.

No field is neutral
The point about which I have changed my mind concerns the role of the University in this issue. In my previous piece, I wrote that the education I was getting at UU was too one-sided, and that I would like to have someone in the classroom giving me a completely different perspective. However, it is true that the discipline of gender studies, which I mentioned in my previous article, also stems from activism, so it is logical that it has a certain political angle. That is the whole purpose of the discipline. I think I misunderstood the term intersectionality in my previous article as well.

Moreover, no field can be completely 'neutral'. The problem is not that teachers would 'influence' us with their own ideas. Every teacher has his or her own world view and it’s impossible for them to completely let go of judgement. Nor are all perspectives equally well-founded or equally convincing. I don't need a global warming sceptic as a teacher.

Think critically
That is why I would not necessarily argue for more diversity of opinion among teachers or in the curricula. The problem is not that we are presented with too few opinions. Rather, it’s that there are not enough honest attempts to put ourselves in the other person's shoes when we are exposed to their opinions.

We are taught to be critical (also of the theories we are presented with) and to do our own research into 'the other side of the coin'. But there is still a lot of polarisation, misunderstanding, and cancelling. So, we’re not learning to understand each other, which makes us become biased and sometimes even aggressive. How do we get closer to each other, then?

More room for open discussion
Part of the answer to that question can be found in my previous opinion piece: there should be much more room for open discussion, even within disciplines such as media studies or gender studies, where one often already assumes that the majority shares the same opinion. Above all, we must teach ourselves, students and teachers alike, to be open to differing opinions, so that we do not alienate others. Only by listening to each other can we try to find common ground. That’s also necessary in the (digital) lecture hall.

Another solution is to create an open atmosphere by thinking more critically, not only about others, but also about yourself and your own views. We should be more understanding when faced with differences, which can be cultivated more seriously at the University by making it an explicit goal in courses that focus on scientific debate. That way, students would be encouraged to develop respect for different interpretations or points of view, or strengthen an inquisitive attitude towards deviant or even objectionable points of view.

Fighting fire with fire is pointless
We should try much harder to understand other people's points of view, even when they are different or undesirable, as in the case of sexism and racism. When someone says something sexist or racist, anger and condemnation is a logical first reaction, but fighting fire with fire is pointless. Ultimately, we need to get to the point of being able to understand why someone is saying something racist or sexist. Only then can we counteract racism and/or sexism and achieve structural change.

This is not an All Lives Matter story. It is important to continue to stand up for disadvantaged and/or oppressed groups, because they do exist. But it should not drive us apart as much as it is doing now.

In short: it is important that we remain critical of the literature that is put in front of us and that we dare to discuss this criticism, also with people outside our bubble. The algorithms of social media may have determined what information we take in, but we still determine ourselves how we interact with each other offline. This is not the job of university lecturers or curricula, as I contended in my previous piece. It’s everyone’s job.

As I wrote in my previous article as well, 'students are adults who can also reflect critically on a point of view'. I stand by that. It is not the material that needs to change, it is our attitude.

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